North Korea is gearing up to launch a 3G mobile network next week, just a month after it finally relaxed restrictions on foreigners bringing cell phones into the country. For the first time, cell phone users will be able to access the web via mobile, but the network will be restricted to foreigners only.
The Associated Press reports that North Korea’s 3G network is set to go live on March 1. The network has been built by Koryolink, a 3G provider that’s partly owned by North Korea’s government. Koryolink recently began contacting foreign residents in Pyongyang to inform them that they’ll soon be able to buy data plans for their mobile phones.
Koryolink’s announcement comes just weeks after North Korea said that it would allow foreign tourists to start bringing their mobile phones into the country for the first time. Previously, foreigners that landed at Pyongyang International Airport were required to hand over their phones to authorities at immigration, collecting them only when they left the country. Now though, foreigners have the option to buy local SIM cards at the airport or rent a phone for the duration of their stay.
According to AP, the full internet won’t be available to foreign residents for the time being, with only certain text and voice services enabled.
The move follows a recent, controversial visit to the country by Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, who said at the time that Koryolink could easily initiate 3G services in the country:
“There is a 3G network that is a joint venture with an Egyptian company called Orascom. It is a 2100 Megahertz SMS-based technology network that does not, for example, allow users to have a data connection and use smart phones,” explained Schmidt.
“It would be very easy for them to turn the Internet on for this 3G network. Estimates are that are about a million and a half phones in the DPRK with some growth planned in the near future.”
Schmidt received some criticism for visiting the country, but he did at least take the opportunity to urge North Korea to get connected in order to help develop its economy:
“As the world becomes increasingly connected, their decision to be virtually isolated is very much going to affect their view of the world. This will make it harder for them to catch up economically. We made that alternative very, very clear.”